When the defending champions travelled to Glasgow in the first full weekend of action in January, they had a significant lead in both the battle for the South African Shield and in the race for a top two position on the overall log.
To the point that a degree of comfort was beckoning as their reward if they won.
However, it didn’t turn out like coach John Dobson and his team were hoping, and Glasgow Warriors won a thrilling game at the Scotstoun Stadium that was both a great spectacle and reached an exciting conclusion, with the hosts scoring the winning try off what proved to be the final move of the game.
Former Springbok assistant coach Franco Smith has done wonders with the Warriors, who play a style that isn’t dissimilar to that played by the DHL Stormers, and they are fast emerging as a serious threat to South Africa’s hopes of having two teams in the top four.
But now that there are only five games to play in the league phase, the DHL Stormers can probably feel they need worry less about the Warriors when it comes to log position, and can benefit from the Scots knocking over Ulster when the men from Belfast visit Glasgow at the start of the next round.
There isn’t much Vodacom URC rugby being played during the period the Six Nations is on, but the rounds that will be played could be hugely significant to final log positions, and the DHL Stormers can benefit from the results of games that will be contested by their most recent opponents.
A week after Ulster face Glasgow, they go to Durban to play the rescheduled fixture against the Cell C Sharks, while Glasgow go to Johannesburg to play the Emirates Lions the same day. Both these matches were postponed due to gastroenteritis infections in October.
It was Ulster who joined Glasgow in taking out some of the wind that had been pumped into the DHL Stormers’ sails with their two derby wins in Cape Town over the festive period. The men from Northern Ireland beat an admittedly depleted DHL Stormers team by 35-5 following the Heineken Champions Cup game that was sandwiched in between that and the Glasgow clash.
That five-point swing against the DHL Stormers was huge in the tussle for second place behind rampant Leinster, but the Capetonians in turn smashed the Cell C Sharks in their away derby to restore a bit of their advantage last weekend.
And with so few games left, they will be sitting pretty again if Glasgow beat Ulster at Scotstoun on 17 February, which is the next Vodacom URC game on the schedule, and the Cell C Sharks get up against Ulster at HollywoodBets Kings Park eight days later.
In effect then, two of the most recent DHL Stormers opponents will be relied upon by Dobson and his players to do the business against Ulster.
Should the Warriors win it could even ease some of the pressure on the DHL Stormers as they go into their big derby match against the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria the next day. With a 10-point lead over last year’s runners up in the SA Shield, and seven over Ulster overall, they’d still have some breathing space if they lose at Loftus Versfeld.
Conversely, an Ulster win will pile the pressure on the Cape side, as their current advantage on Ulster is with a game in hand.
If Ulster win next Friday and the DHL Stormers lose in Pretoria, the gap could be reduced to two points, with Ulster still having a game in hand – against the Cell C Sharks in Durban the following week, hence its potential importance to the DHL Stormers.
Another big game when the Vodacom URC resumes during the first bye weekend in the Six Nations is the one that will take place in Limerick, where Munster host the Ospreys. After their slow start to the season, Munster have gone on a bit of a charge and like Glasgow have suddenly become a threat to the teams in the top four.
At the same time, the Ospreys have also picked up momentum, mostly due to their good performances in the Heineken Champions Cup, and have a lot to play for when they visit Munster as it is still nip and tuck in the Welsh Shield between them and Cardiff.
It looks like that the Ospreys will need to win the Shield to qualify for next year’s Heineken Champions Cup, for the Welsh teams have dropped out of the top eight.
Edinburgh’s visit to Scarlets on the Saturday evening could become significant if the Cell C Sharks lose their derby against the Emirates Lions earlier on the same day and therefore make themselves vulnerable to the Scottish team in the battle for top eight places and therefore playoff spots.
Currently, Edinburgh are two points behind the eighth-placed KwaZulu-Natalians, albeit that the Cell C Sharks have a game in hand.
Forthcoming Vodacom URC fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 17 February:
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Ulster
21h35: Munster v Ospreys
Saturday, 18 February:
15h00: Emirates Lions v Cell C Sharks
17h05: Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers
17h05: Zebre v Connacht
19h15: Cardiff v Benetton
19h15: Scarlets v Edinburgh
21h35: Leinster v Dragons
Top 8 log positions:
- Leinster - 61 points after 13 games
- DHL Stormers - 50 points after 13 games
- Ulster - 43 points after 12 games
- Vodacom Bulls - 40 points after 13 games
- Glasgow Warriors - 39 points after 12 games
- Munster - 37 points after 13 games
- Benetton - 34 points after 13 games
- Cell C Sharks - 33 points after 12 games